In celebration of Halloween, a list of my top ten favorite scary books.
1. Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist
2. Pet Sematary, Stephen King
3. People Who Eat Darkness (nonfiction), Richard Lloyd Parry
4. The Exorcist, William Peter Batty
5. In Cold Blood (nonfiction), Truman Capote
6. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Stephen King
7. Helter Skelter (nonfiction), Vincent Bugliosi
8. Misery, Stephen King
9. Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
10. The Witching Hour, Anne Rice
The first three books on the list are the ones that scared me the most. I read John Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In while traveling alone in Chicago. I had to wait until I got home to finish it because it was too scary to read alone in my hotel room at night. I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary in 1983 when my husband and I were first married. He was away—I don’t remember where—on military travel. I was staying at my parents’ house. I finished reading the book around 2 a.m. and I was too scared to get out of bed to turn out the light. So I called out for my mom (I was 21 years old at the time), and she climbed into bed with me. One of the reasons People Who Eat Darkness is so damn scary is because it’s true crime—and we all know that truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s a helluva lot scarier sometimes too.
I loved Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles but those books didn’t scare me as much as the ones in my top ten list. I also loved Stephen King’s The Shining but again, it didn’t scare me as much as the others.
Some scary books on my TBR list: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bird Box by Josh Malerman, and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes.
(In this season of graduations, here’s a piece I wrote two years ago reflecting on our older son’s graduation from art school. It originally appeared in May 2012 in the Kansas City Star.)
Sitting in a darkened auditorium at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that blazing August morning back in 2008, I listened, enchanted by the speaker at the podium, whose words etched themselves in my memory. The occasion was new-student orientation, and my son, about to begin his freshman year at SAIC, sat next to me, doodling in his program. The speaker, Tony Jones, chancellor and former president of the School, said a lot of funny things in his introductory remarks, including the obligatory jokes about Chicago winters. He may not have had my son’s full attention at the start, but when he got down to talking about artists and art, Jones really captured his audience of nascent artists and anxious parents.
Jones talked about the type of student who goes to art school. He said if you choose to study art because you like art better than any other subject, or if you choose to study art because you’re good at it, then you shouldn’t be at art school. He went on to say that if you choose to attend art school for any reason, you shouldn’t be there. As Jones put it, the only reason to pursue art in college is when you can’t imagine yourself doing anything but art.
The other thing Jones pointed out is that, in today’s world, it takes a lot of courage to be an artist. We live in a society that places a lot of importance on college majors like science and business. Not that we shouldn’t place a high value on these areas of study (our younger son is a biomedical engineering student who will no doubt make his own great contributions to the universe). But the emphasis on math and science comes at a cost. A young person who wishes to pursue art is often discouraged from doing so by parents and other well-meaning adults. As parents of an art major, our conversations with other parents often go something like this:
Your son goes to art school? What’s he going to do—teach?
No, he wants to be a studio artist.
Yes, but what does he want to do?
He wants to make art.
OK. But what’s his real job going to be?
You get the idea. If we as parents find it challenging (or amusing, depending on your mood that day) to explain our students’ vocation, imagine how they must feel. That’s why Jones said it takes a lot of courage to be an artist. Art is hard. Not just a hard way to make a living, but hard in the way of finding one’s place, both in the art world and in the world at large. And no one puts himself out there quite like an artist does. Imagine taking a piece of yourself and putting it on display for others to see and comment on, day after day. Artists find strength in vulnerability. Artists are makers. They make something from nothing. How many of us can claim the ability to do that?
I won’t bore you with why I think art and the makers of art are vital to human existence, other than to say, what a humdrum world it would be without art! Suffice to say, four years and countless sleepless nights since that August morning in 2008, our son is now preparing to graduate. Not all of the students have made it this far. Of those who have, many have fought hard to get to this point—our son included. I can’t wait to see him walk across the stage. When he does, I’ll not only be filled with pride for his accomplishments, but with admiration for his courage.
This piece was originally published in May 2013 as a Facebook Note. I’m wishing a Happy Mother’s Day to all my friends and family. I know Mother’s Day can be a sad day for many of us—a time when we miss our mothers who are no longer here, when we grieve children who left us too soon, when fractured relationships make it hard to feel celebratory. So grab whatever happiness you can find and treat yourself with kindness this Mother’s Day. We’re all just doing the best we can, right? —Nan
To My Sons: What I Would Like for Mother’s Day
I want you to have good hearts and be kind to others.
I want you to be independent, self-motivated, and self-sufficient.
I want you to love yourself, but never stop trying to be a better person.
I want you to love each other, and be there for each other when I’m gone.
I want you to be honest with yourself and others.
I want you to be true to yourself even if some people would rather you not.
I want you to feel love and be loved and love freely, even though that means you’ll probably be hurt sometimes.
I want you to be lifelong learners.
I want you to read a lot.
I want you to do what you say you’re going to do.
If you screw up, I want you to own it, apologize, and try to do better next time.
I want you to treat others with respect, and demand to be treated with respect in return.
I want you to put others before yourself sometimes.
I want you to know life is not fair, but keep being optimistic.
I want you to be able to keep your sense of humor even in the dark times—especially during the dark times.
I want you to work hard, work before you play, and when you do play, enjoy yourself (as long as your work is done first).
I want you to be curious about others—genuinely curious.
I want you to know you don’t know everything.
I want you to choose happiness, and understand that you have to keep choosing happiness over and over again, every morning you wake up.
I want you to do what you love. Sometimes that’s not what you imagined it would be, so you have to stay open to new possibilities.
I want you to be grateful for simple things, like a good night’s sleep, a walk outdoors, food in your tummy, warmth when it’s cold outside, and a soft clean pillow on which to lay your head at night.
I want you to keep your word.
I want you to be able to forgive others and never leave room in your heart for hate.
I want you to know I would give anything for your happiness, including my life.
I want you to remember I was once young just like you, that I had hopes and dreams just like you, and that you’re never too old to dream—because if I can keep dreaming, so can you.
I want you to know the value of hope. Hope is everything.
I want you to remember things always seem worse in the middle of the night. It will be better in the morning, I promise.
I want you to think of me as a whole human being who has feelings just like you, but also know that I’ll never stop being your mom, and there’s no one on this earth who believes in you more than me.
p.s. A homemade card with a handwritten note would also be nice.
My journey with Chat, Connect, and Crash has been an adventure—always interesting, mostly fun, and sometimes a little heartbreaking.
From the first, self-published edition of Chat in 1995, to the publication of the trilogy in trade paperback by Simon & Schuster in 1998, to 2014, nearly twenty years later and the books once again self-published, my journey with Chat, Connect, and Crash has been an adventure—always interesting, mostly fun, and sometimes a little heartbreaking. With the release of new editions of the trilogy in 2014 and the upcoming 20th anniversary of the books in 2015, here are some of the highlights of my journey from self-published author to traditionally published author and back again.
Chat is the story of two strangers who meet online, unfolding entirely through their email messages to one another. Although epistolary novels have been around for hundreds of years, Chat was the first full-length email epistolary novel ever written. (It was also among the earliest novels sold online directly to readers—more on that later.) Because of my previous career working at a computer magazine, I first got online in 1987, fueling my lifelong love affair with email and online communications.
I wrote Chat in the spring and summer of 1995. While working on the novel I tried to get it published traditionally, sending out queries via snail mail to about 25 publishers in all. Chat was quickly rejected by all of them save for one, an editor at Ballantine who asked to see the complete manuscript (exciting!) but who eventually turned it down, explaining in a personal letter that she liked the novel herself but couldn’t garner support for it from her colleagues. In spite of all the rejections, I found the one personalized response strangely encouraging. (We authors don’t need much to keep us plowing blindly ahead.)
Amidst all the rejections, and still flying high from the simply exhilarating experience of having written a novel, it occurred to me that with my background in digital publishing technology (writing how-to books and magazine articles on page layout software, prepress and printing techniques), I possessed the technical knowledge to produce the books myself. Keep in mind this was several years before the advent of ebooks, so back then “the latest technology” involved using page-layout software to create mechanicals that would be used in the production of printed copies. It wasn’t quite as “easy” as some people claim ebook production is today, but the new digital publishing technology of the mid-1990s did allow me access to less expensive prepress and production methods, especially since I had the experience and knowledge to do the page layout and production work myself.
So in late summer 1995 I began working with a book designer named David High, who I’d come to know when we worked together as freelancers on some corporate marketing projects and whose design work I featured in my computer book Quark Design: A Visual Guide to QuarkXPress (Peachpit Press, 1995). Although I’d only just finished writing Chat, I knew there’d eventually be three books in the series, so David created cover and interior designs for the entire set. I also hired one of my editorial peers at another computer magazine, Linnea Dayton, to copyedit the manuscript.
Using David’s interior design templates I worked on page composition while also interviewing and getting bids from various printers recommended by my local PIA (Printing Industries of America) chapter. After settling on a printer, I finalized the digital files, sent them to a prepress shop for camera-ready output and film negatives (for the cover), and the book was ready for printing.
Several nerve-wracking weeks later, just before Thanksgiving in November 1995, my husband and I picked up the boxes containing printed copies of Chat from the printer. Once back home, with boxes strewn around the kitchen, we excitedly began opening them, but our excitement quickly turned to shock and disappointment as we realized about 20% of the books contained serious printing errors such as missing pages, repeated pages, double-imaged pages, and crooked pages. What a letdown. We ended up culling through the entire 2,500 print run to find around 2,000 usable books. (It wasn’t funny at the time, but I have an amusing memory of making a personal visit to the printing office the following Monday morning, a sample of unusable books in hand, asking to speak to the president of the company—after which I ended up cooling my heels in the lobby for about 30 minutes because the douchenozzle of a president was too afraid to come out of his office to talk to the pissed-off author. Suffice to say I didn’t end up paying for the unusable copies.)
Previously, while waiting for the books to come back from the printer, I’d begun laying the groundwork to market and sell the books myself. I set up a P.O. Box and an 800-number (yes, I had my own toll-free number readers could call to order copies of the books, which rang into our home and which I answered myself), and I also went through the arduous (at the time) process of becoming a credit card merchant, which included the banking official making a personal visit to my home office, where I gave him a computer demonstration of how I would receive and fulfill orders via email (“So this is what they call the Internet,” I remember him saying). I also learned about ISBNs, purchasing a block of 100 from Reed Reference Publishing (later to become RR Bowker, now Bowker) for $165, which I thought was expensive at the time. (Today a single ISBN will set you back $125, while a block of 100 costs nearly $600.)
My plan was to mail out 250 promotional copies of Chat as holiday gifts to my colleagues in the computer industry, and by the end of December my promotion efforts succeeded in creating some nice buzz about the book as well as providing me with much-appreciated positive feedback and encouragement. Some of my colleagues even published brief write-ups about the novel in industry publications like The Seybold Report and How magazine; I was also invited to write a guest feature about my self-publishing experience for Publish magazine. Meanwhile I’d begun taking orders for the books via email, snail mail, and my toll-free number while also making plans to construct my very own Rainwater Press website where I could take my e-commerce to the next level with an online order form and credit card processing.
For the website, I collaborated with another former colleague, Eric Llewellyn, a designer I’d worked with at a computer software company. Eric was at the cutting edge of HTML and Web design back in 1995, and with Eric’s design and programming skills and my copywriting and organizational skills, we were able to unveil the original Rainwater Press website in early 1996. (Though out-of-date, an archive of this website still exists at www.rainwater.com. For up-to-date information, you’ll want to continue visiting my current author website right here at www.nan-mccarthy.com.) I was now open for business as an author on the still-nascent World Wide Web, selling copies of my book directly to readers. Little did I know that the way I was selling my book (online) would be as much a part of the story as the book itself.
The following year, in the summer of 1996, while I continued selling copies of Chat, I wrote the second book in the series, Connect, returning to the story of Bev and Max and their growing fascination with one another. This second book was also self-published, again with a print run of 2,500 copies (though using a different printer this time), copyedited by Linnea Dayton, and featuring another eye-catching cover design by David High.
By this time things with the books were beginning to percolate. I was approached by Ted Nace, founder and publisher of Peachpit Press, who was interested in a co-publishing deal for Chat. This was a bold move on Ted’s part because Peachpit was primarily a computer book publisher, and Chat would be the publishing house’s first work of fiction. Ted and I came to an agreement, and in late summer 1996, Chat was released to a wider audience (including bookstore distribution) with a second print run of 20,000 copies. Along with the national bookstore distribution provided by Peachpit, I continued selling both Chat and Connect directly to readers via my website, email, and 800 number.
What’s more, I was starting to get approached by publishers in other countries about foreign rights. In late 1996 and early 1997, I sold translation rights for Chat to Spanish publisher Pagina Uno and Korean publisher Ahn Graphics. Also around this time, due to the wider distribution offered by Peachpit and my continued marketing and promotion efforts (including sending complimentary copies of Chat along with custom Chat t-shirts to the White House, Oprah, Stephen King, and Dave Barry among others), publications such as The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour, and People began to take note, publishing reviews of the books as well as articles about the new and unusual (back then) ways I was using the Internet to successfully promote and sell my books directly to readers. (Sample headline from The Wall Street Journal: “Unknown Novelist Wins Following on Web by Self-Promotion and Luck.”)
In the summer of 1997 I wrote the third book in the trilogy, Crash, and Chinese translation rights to all three books were sold to Addison-Wesley in Taiwan. Around this same time, after the People magazine write-up in the spring of 1997, I was contacted via email by a literary agent in New York who’d seen the write-up and offered representation. With the blessing of Ted Nace and the release from my agreement with Peachpit, my agent subsequently sold the rights to all three books to the Pocket Books division of Simon & Schuster (one of the very same publishers who’d rejected the manuscript two years previously). Meanwhile, the books and my Rainwater website were continuing to get press coverage, with a second write-up in Publishers Weekly and articles in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Chicago Sun-Times, New City, Chicago Books in Review, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and others.
These were exciting times. I’d been working non-stop promoting the books in addition to spending a good amount of time processing and shipping orders coming in through my website. Although I enjoyed the marketing aspect of what I was doing, my first love has always been writing, and I yearned for more time to get back to writing and start work on a new novel. I viewed the offer from Simon & Schuster as an opportunity to make use of a larger publishing house’s marketing, sales, and distribution channels, taking Chat, Connect, and Crash to new levels while also allowing me more time to focus on my writing.
Although I’d already more than recouped my self-publishing costs, the advance from Simon & Schuster (which my agent described as “respectable”) was a nice boost, both financially and career-wise. At the time the contract was offered, my agent mentioned S&S wanted to make some “very minor” changes to the ending of Crash that would take “two minutes.” I was slightly concerned but the changes were downplayed and I didn’t press further—after all, I was eager, inexperienced in the ways of traditional publishing deals, and didn’t want to jeopardize the offer.
Over the course of the following year (it took about twelve months from contract signing to publication, even though S&S didn’t have to do production work on the first two books since they used my previously created QuarkXPress files for the interiors), I remained busy working with Pocket Books on cover consultations, marketing and promotion plans, production details, and figuring out the new ending they requested for Crash. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the books yet, but suffice to say S&S wanted a “happier” ending than the one I’d originally written. Overall I didn’t have a problem with modifying the ending to suit their tastes, but the process was arduous—a lot of back and forth over a period of about two months (a lot longer than the “two minutes” originally mentioned)—with the end result being a compromise I wasn’t too excited about, but which the powers-that-be at S&S seemed happy enough with.
Meanwhile, I had begun work on a new novel, and we continued selling foreign rights to the trilogy—to Simon & Schuster UK (who created the pink, green, and blue cover designs also used on the U.S. versions of the books), Turkish publisher Oglak, German publisher Goldmann, Slovenian publisher Ucila, and Dutch publisher Uitgeverij Prometheus.
Simon & Schuster published all three books in trade paperback in the fall of 1998, with a print run of 30,000 copies. I’m proud to say the books were profitable enough that I “earned out” my advance relatively quickly, and the press coverage continued for a short while with write-ups in Mademoiselle, Entertainment Weekly, The Orange County Register, Washington Post Book World, and CNN.com (one of the earlier online news sites). I also signed an amended contract allowing Simon & Schuster to sell the trilogy in electronic format (the term “ebook” wasn’t widely in use at the time) on “portable handheld devices” such as the Softbook ($299), Rocketbook ($500), and EB Dedicated Reader ($1400-$1600), making digital editions of the books available for purchase in early 1999.
While I continued to receive royalty statements and checks from Simon & Schuster for sales of Chat, Connect, & Crash, in 2000 I embarked on a new project, interviewing my father’s childhood friends for a memoir of my father’s life (he died young of alcoholic cirrhosis at age 39) called Live ’Til I Die, which I self-published in December 2001, just a month before my mom’s death in January 2002. Though sales of the memoir never came close to those of my email trilogy, writing and publishing Live ’Til I Die was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, a project I’m proud of to this day.
Not long after I completed Live ’Til I Die, and nearly four years after the trilogy’s trade paperback publication by Simon & Schuster, I received word from S&S in early 2002 that the Chat, Connect, and Crash books would soon go out of print. In exchange for some foreign rights monies that had never been paid to me, I negotiated delivery of several hundred copies of each book (copies that would’ve otherwise been destroyed). Also at that time, at my request and as per my contract, my agent sent a letter to S&S asking that the rights to the books be reverted back to me, but I never heard back from anyone.
Although it wasn’t something I planned on, I ended up taking a break from full-time writing over the next ten years (though I continued accepting short-term gigs like writing a guest column for The Kansas City Star). Due to my husband’s career in the Marine Corps, we moved around a lot (including two cross-country moves during the time I was writing and promoting Chat, Connect, and Crash). By the time we landed in the Kansas City area in 2003, our two sons were approaching their teen years and my husband was traveling more and more (including a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2008). There just wasn’t enough of me to go around to be a full-time writer, a military spouse charged with running the household during my husband’s frequent absences, and the kind of mom I wanted to be to our two teenage sons. So writing novels was put on the back burner for a while—a long while. It was a decision I’m happy to have made, and though I missed writing full-time, the upside was that the time spent living my life and focusing on my family filled my creative well to overflowing.
Surprisingly, during this period I continued receiving small royalty checks from Simon & Schuster, mostly for the ebook editions of the trilogy being sold via online outlets such as Amazon. I also continued selling a small number of printed copies of Chat, Connect, Crash, and Live ’Til I Die via direct orders from my website, email, and snail mail, and in 2011 Chat was the subject of a thesis paper by an Italian grad student named Antonietta D’Amore. Antonietta was a student at L’Orientale University in Naples, Italy who translated the book to Italian and interviewed me extensively (via email, of course) about Chat and the linguistics of Internet communication.
By 2012, with my husband retired from the Marine Corps, one son graduated from college and another well on his way, I finally felt like I could get back to focusing full-time on my writing career. One of the first things I did was send a letter to the publisher of Simon & Schuster once again asking for a reversion of rights to the trilogy as per my contract (briefly mentioning I’d been waiting ten years for a response to my first request), and within a couple weeks I received a signed reversion of rights agreement from S&S.
In 2012 I also began work on a new novel related to military life, the idea for which came to me during my husband’s deployment to Iraq in 2008. That novel is coming along well, and I hope to publish it sometime in 2017.
In the first few months of 2014, I took some time away from writing my most recent novel to work on creating new, self-published editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash now that I had the rights back. What a thrill it’s been to once again have ownership of these books!
Because so much time had passed and my digital files of the manuscripts were on old media such as floppy disks and SyQuest cartridges (and therefore difficult if not impossible to access), I ended up having to type all three manuscripts from scratch into new Word documents (which wasn’t so bad since I’m a fast typist). I also ended up digging through boxes of old files to find the first manuscript for Crash written in 1997, using it as a reference to restore the original ending. This in itself was a gratifying and exciting experience—with the original ending to Crash now intact, the trilogy on the whole feels stronger and more authentic to me.
I hired Faith Simmons (who happens to be my niece in addition to being an editorial goddess) to copyedit all three newly typed manuscripts. I also contacted David High, who designed the original editions of the trilogy and who agreed to work with me again on creating fresh covers and interior designs for the new editions. And because of technological advancements over the last decade, I decided to hire a typesetter with skills in ebook adaptation (instead of attempting to do the production work myself this time). Kevin Callahan of BNGO Books created page mechanicals based on David’s new designs, and he also converted the books to the proper digital formats for upload to all the major online ebook retailers including Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.
The ebook editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash became available for purchase in April 2014 (and perhaps you’ve followed the link to this article from within the ebooks themselves—if so, thank you for purchasing my books!). As I prepared the new editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash, I realized that 2015 will be the trilogy’s 20th anniversary. At some point I hope to release printed copies of the books, along with a possible fourth book in the series (Cloud), that will bring us up-to-date on Bev and Max’s story, twenty or twenty-five years later. I’m also working on a bonus book featuring background info on some of the obscure details and 1990s pop culture references in the trilogy. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll have saved up enough money to create a boxed set of all five books (Chat, Connect, Crash, Cloud, and the bonus book) as a special way to commemorate Chat’s 25th anniversary in the year 2020. (In the meantime, I’m devoting all of my time to writing and publishing the new novel, unrelated to the email trilogy.)
In spite of the inevitable heartbreaks involved in any publishing venture, I’ve had more than my share of fun with these books. I’m grateful for every obstacle, every disappointment, and every person I encountered along the way. Each experience has brought me to this point in my life, a place I’m very happy to be. I’m excited about taking advantage of the many new technologies and platforms available to writers who want to self-publish these days. When I wake up each morning, my mind can barely contain the ideas I have for new books and new ways to market and sell them. The best part about my publishing journey? It’s only just the beginning.
A homecoming parade is a beautiful thing, but what veterans and their families really need is for America to keep its promises.
I love the new Budweiser commercial that’s airing in today’s Super Bowl. Since Anheuser-Busch released the one-minute ad featuring Army Lt. Chuck Nadd, who served as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, and his surprise welcome-home parade put on by his hometown of Winter Park, Florida in conjunction with Anheuser-Busch, my eyes well with tears every time I watch it. As the wife of a retired Marine, I’m grateful to Anheuser-Busch—and all Americans—for these demonstrations of appreciation toward our veterans.
My own husband’s homecoming from Iraq on a cold Valentine’s night in 2009 wasn’t nearly as exciting and romantic as the one shown in the Budweiser commercial. He arrived at Kansas City International airport near midnight, virtually anonymous save for his high-and-tight, disembarking from a commercial jet wearing civilian clothes because he’d already gone through post-deployment debriefing with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Twentynine Palms, CA, and Marines don’t wear their uniforms (for security reasons) when flying on commercial aircraft. So when he finally emerged from the deserted gate area it was just him and me and a long hug and silence. We were both too choked up for words, but the hug said everything we needed it to say.
My husband retired from the Marine Corps in 2011 after 29 years of service. Our two sons are young adults now, 20 and 23. They didn’t ask to be born into a military family, but they managed that burden with grace, surviving multiple moves throughout their childhoods, adapting to new schools and finding new friends and always knowing what it’s like to be the new kid. It wasn’t an easy life for them, but even they will tell you they’re better human beings because of the challenges they faced as “military kids.”
I’m happy so many people will see Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” commercial during the Super Bowl today. I think it will bring tears to a lot of people’s eyes, not just veterans and their families. I know the gratitude people feel toward our veterans is genuine.
But if you’re not in the military, or related to someone who’s in the military, you probably don’t know that this past December, Congress passed legislation as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 that, starting in 2015, will reduce the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) of retired service members’ pensions by 1% per year until the age of 62. This may not seem like a lot, but according to the Military Officer Association of America (MOAA), this amounts to a potential lifetime loss of nearly $83,000 for an enlisted service member with 20 years of service and approximately $124,000 for an officer with 20 years of service.
Maybe you’re one of those people who think that military pensions are too generous. After all, a person can serve 20 years in the military, retire at a relatively young age, start a new career and earn a paycheck from that job while also collecting a monthly military pension. Just looking at the numbers, it does seem pretty generous, especially when compared to most other jobs with limited or non-existent pension plans. But I’m pretty sure the folks who think that military pensions are too generous—that cutting service members’ retirement compensation is no big deal—have never served in the military, or had a family member who served.
And if you’re one of those people, I don’t blame you for not being aware of the hidden costs of military service. If you’ve never worn the combat boots or stood at the tarmac waving goodbye to the person you love, how could you possibly know the sacrifices involved in serving in the military?
Most everybody knows about the scariest and most dramatic aspects of military service: the possibility of losing one’s life, of suffering permanent physical injuries and/or lifelong psychological trauma—these are the more obvious risks associated with putting one’s self in harm’s way. Then there’s the extended absences, the heartbreak of missing important life events like the birth of a child or your teen’s high school graduation, and the emotional toll these absences take on marriages and children.
While these are the most well-known types of sacrifices made by service members and their families, if you’re not from a military family, you’re probably not aware of the more mundane, long-term costs associated with military life. Like the fact that most military families never have a chance to build equity in a home because of moving every three years and, even if they’re lucky enough to purchase a home (vs. renting) at each duty station, they usually take a loss or break even every time they have to sell. And have you ever considered how nearly impossible it is for most military spouses to sustain a career when they not only have to switch jobs due to moving to a new location every three years but are also left in charge of finding the new house, selling or renting the old house, enrolling the kids in new schools, finding the new dentist, etc. because their service member is either deployed or required to devote his time to getting “snapped in” to the new job? This inability to maintain a career over the 20+ years of a spouse’s military service costs military families hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages, not to mention the chance to earn an additional pension. Because—assuming a spouse is able to find someone willing to hire him or her at each new duty station, most military spouses never have the chance to keep a job long enough to earn retirement at any one location.
So, you say, military people knew all this stuff when they signed up. Yes, that’s true. Military people were also told when they signed up that they would earn a specific amount in retirement earnings based on their rank and time in service. Not just told, but promised. And a lot of service members—and their families—made the decision to stick it out long enough to reach the 20-year mark for precisely that reason—so they could earn the retirement benefits they were promised. And now Congress is reducing those benefits—taking them away from our service members. By passing this legislation, Congress is saying, yeah, we did promise you a certain compensation package when you signed up, and yeah, you did risk your life and health and family stability thinking you would receive that certain compensation package if you stuck it out long enough. But we really gotta balance that budget, so we’re yanking the rug out from under you and just changing the terms of our agreement with you a teeny tiny bit, and though we know you military folks are going to hoot and holler about it, we’re betting on the fact that the average American either won’t notice or won’t care.
As the wife of a veteran I admit to taking this a bit personally. And yeah, I’m angry about the potential loss of income from my husband’s retirement pay. But what really concerns me—beyond the lack of integrity shown by our Congress in breaking a promise made to our service members—is how this bait and switch will affect the future strength of our all-volunteer force, playing out in recruiting stations across the U.S. I’m picturing a recruiter sitting down with a young recruit and his or her parents or spouse, talking about the great benefits package he or she can look forward to upon retirement, when the potential recruit replies, yeah that all sounds great… but what if Congress decides to take those benefits away from me after I’ve put in my 20 years, like it did to service members in 2013?
So when you’re watching the Super Bowl today, and you shed a tear at the heartfelt “A Hero’s Welcome” Budweiser commercial, please do our veterans a favor. Show your thanks by going to the MOAA Legislative Action Center and completing the online form that will send a message to your House and Senate representatives asking them to repeal the provision (Section 403) in the Bipartisan Budget Act that cuts retirement benefits for current and future military retirees: http://capwiz.com/moaa/issues/alert/?alertid=63042726. (And if you’re the social media type and want to do even more, use the #KeepYourPromise hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to let Congress know know how much you honor our veterans’ service.)
A homecoming parade is a beautiful thing, but what veterans and their families really need is for America to keep its promises.
In honor of my mother in-law Caryl McCarthy (1930-1992), who was born on Christmas Eve.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
Other than having a tendency to talk too much on occasion, Grandma Caryl was a wonderful mother in-law to me. Apart from her dedication to family, she was also a Renaissance Woman, and I admired her for that. She was not only a fantastic cook, she was ahead of her time when it came to popular trends and culture. The first time I ever tasted Cajun/Creole food was at Grandma and Grandpa’s house when your dad and I were dating in the early 1980s, and Grandma served blackened fish, red beans and rice, and jambalaya. This was well before all the trendy restaurants (back then at least) began serving blackened fish (or “blackened” anything for that matter).
Grandma was also the one who introduced me to Zydeco music in the mid-1980s. After we were married and back home from dad’s Marine Corps tours of duty in Okinawa and Virginia, your dad and I enjoyed going to dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in South Holland. We’d arrive at the house on a late afternoon in the summer to find Grandma floating on a lounge chair in the above-ground swimming pool out back while drinking a lemon shandy, or standing at the kitchen sink preparing dinner (still wearing her wet swimsuit of course)—but always with music cranked up to eleven on the stereo in the living room, usually Claude Bolling, Johnny Cash, Prokofiev, or Zydeco. After she got sick she’d lie on the living room couch with her eyes closed, the sounds of Enya drifting throughout the house. (You might also remember Nana listening to Enya before she died. It took a long while after both of their deaths before I could listen to any of my Enya CDs.)
How to Make Grandma Caryl’s Lemon Shandy
Grab a cold can of Stroh’s or a bottle of St. Pauli Girl. Pour half the beer into a chilled Welch’s jelly jar glass (preferably Flintstones or Archies special edition), then fill the rest of the glass with lemonade. Add a slice of lemon and some ice. Don swimsuit, turn up the stereo loud enough to be heard in Holy Ghost parking lot, commence relaxing in pool. When lemon shandy is finished, return dripping wet to kitchen, check jambalaya cooking on stove, pour another shandy using remaining beer/lemonade. Get back in pool and repeat process until Pat & Nancy arrive for dinner or Bob comes home from work asking for a boilermaker (more on that in another letter).
Of course, nowadays you can take the easier route and just buy the seasonal Summer Shandy beer made by Leinenkugel. (Which reminds me of our vacation to Sleeping Bear Dunes the summer of 2010, searching for Petoskey Stones, watching the sun set over Lake Michigan, a cooler of Summer Shandies always within reach. That was fun, wasn’t it?) But the point is Grandma Caryl, being of German descent and always on the cutting edge of popular culture, was drinking her homemade lemon shandies decades before they became a thing here in the U.S.
Grandma Caryl was also a fabulous knitter, crocheter, and all-around seamstress. Well, some of the handmade sweater vests dad wore in college were a little goofy, but I liked her knitted slippers, baby blankets, and Christmas stockings. (Coleman I’m sorry you never got your own Christmas stocking made by Grandma Caryl—she died the year before you were born, which explains why Dad, Ben, and me all have better stockings than you.)
Grandma Caryl was also an avid reader. She liked all the old Agatha Christie mysteries as well as the newer Sue Grafton “alphabet series.” Unfortunately, she only got as far as “’H’ Is for Homicide” before she died in 1992 (Grandma Caryl that is, not Sue Grafton). She also read biographies and all kinds of other non-fiction including the dictionary and encyclopedias. Yes, it’s true. Grandma read the dictionary and an entire set of World Book encyclopedias from first page to last. (She inspired me to try reading the dictionary once myself, but I only got as far as “apathetic.”)
My own enchantment with classic movies was originally fueled by Grandma Caryl, who would sometimes get up at four in the morning to finish one of her knitting projects while watching an old movie on AMC or TNT (this was before the days of TCM). Grandma got me hooked on all the Alfred Hitchcock movies besides “Psycho” and “The Birds” (which I had previously watched on network TV with Nana), including “Rope,” “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” “Notorious,” and “Dial M for Murder.” She and Grandpa also introduced me to a lot of holiday classics. The first time I ever saw “It’s A Wonderful Life” (one of your dad’s favorite movies—he still cries every time he watches it) was at the McCarthy house in South Holland when your dad and I were dating. Grandpa built a fire in the fireplace and we all settled in under one of Grandma’s homemade zigzag afghans to drink hot toddies and watch the movie, Christmas lights twinkling and Paine’s Balsam Fir incense swirling from the miniature log cabin chimney on the fireplace mantel. I had already fallen in love with your father; it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with his family too.
Grandma’s penmanship was illegible (which is why she typed all her recipes) and she wasn’t the greatest housekeeper. But she had other fish to fry—like being a dedicated hockey mom (never missing a chance to ring her cow bell at her sons’ hockey games), Holy Ghost Church choir member and volunteer (cleaning the rectory, among other things), election day poll worker and Democratic Party activist (serving as an Illinois delegate when George McGovern ran for president in 1972), and even working part-time at Dominick’s handing out promotional samples of cheese and crackers and cordials like Midori melon liqueur. All this while raising seven children, in addition to her many other pursuits. I forgot to mention she was also a pretty good oil paint artist, although most of her paintings were done before the kids came along. (Ben you must have inherited Grandma’s artistic leanings in addition to her manner of housekeeping.) It’s hard to imagine she had time left over to lounge in the swimming pool, but if nothing else, Grandma had her shit straight when it came to priority setting.
When I was offered a better-paying job in Denver in 1991, no one was more supportive of dad and me making the move from Chicago to Colorado than Grandma and Grandpa. Which is pretty remarkable, since by then Grandma had been diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of melanoma. Ben, you were only about a year old at the time, so a move to Colorado meant Grandma and Grandpa would get to see their grandson even less. But when I told Grandma the news of my job offer, she didn’t skip a beat in encouraging me to go for it. I appreciated her unselfishness at the time, but my respect for her has deepened over the years as I’ve watched the two of you fly the coop, pursue your passions, and strive for independence.
Before she died I wrote a letter to Grandma thanking her for raising a son like Dad. I told her he was the light of my life, and that I believed he was the man he had become in large part because of her. There’s a certain confidence and stability in people who grow up knowing they are loved unconditionally by their parents, and Dad is one of those people. He was well-loved by both his parents of course, but most especially by Grandma. Here’s to you, Grandma Caryl. Long live summer shandies, goofy sweater vests, and well-loved sons.
“If you find yourself coming up with a list of reasons why it’s not possible for you to get started on that book you say you’ve been wanting to write, you probably don’t want to write it badly enough.”
(This article was originally published on the Rainwater Press website in 1996.)
Many people ask me how I go about writing a book. I have a very simple philosophy on how to approach the writing process. It’s called the Butt to Chair Philosophy. Here’s how it works: You put your butt in the chair and you start writing. You stay in the chair and keep writing until your butt hurts. You may get out of the chair for short periods of time such as when you have to pee or if it’s been more than 24 hours since you’ve last eaten or slept. Otherwise, keep your butt in the chair and don’t stop writing until you are finished with whatever it is you set out to write.
After I tell people about my Butt to Chair Philosophy, they laugh the appropriate length of time, then ask for my real answer on how to write a book. That is my real answer. It seems like an oversimplification of the writing process but what it boils down to is making writing a priority in your life. It’s about making a choice between watering the plants or organizing your files or cleaning your house or taking care of your children or working at some other job and writing. You can’t write and do something else at the same time, no matter how important or urgent the other thing may be. You have to make the decision to not do a lot of other things so that you can put your butt in the chair and keep writing until your head hurts and you begin to feel droplets of blood oozing from the pores in your forehead. (You might also find you enjoy this sort of thing but that’s a topic for an entirely different essay.)
I’m sorry to be impatient, but people who say they want to write yet who offer excuses for why they are not actually writing remind me of when our youngest son was three years old and he would try to get out of eating his broccoli. He never actually said he didn’t want to eat his broccoli. He instead came up with all sorts of reasons why he couldn’t pick up his fork and put the piece of broccoli in his mouth at that moment in time. He had to take a drink of milk. He had to go to the bathroom. He had to get his blankie. He had to eat his garlic bread first. He had to tell me something important. He had to have a different fork.
If you find yourself coming up with a list of reasons why it’s not possible for you to get started on that book you say you’ve been wanting to write, you probably don’t want to write it badly enough.
On the other hand, some nights our son would surprise us and actually eat his broccoli. He always started by putting his butt in the chair.
Your book will never get written unless you first put your butt in the chair. If your butt is not in the chair you probably don’t want to write that book, even if you say you do.
I am not your mother, but if you ask me how to write a book, I will tell you to put your butt in the chair, pick up your fork, and start writing.
Gray hair might be fashionable now but it sure wasn’t hip when I first went au naturel in the ’90s.
I started turning gray when I was 18, and I’ve had a full head of gray hair since my early 30s. (I’ll be 52 this October.) My dad, who died when he was 39 and I was 9, also had a full head of gray hair by the time he was 30. My natural hair color as a child was what they called “dishwater blonde”; I added blonde highlights from the time I was a teenager until I was about 32. It was then I noticed my roots looked white so I decided to stop coloring my hair and see what was underneath. I was surprised to find my hair had turned completely gray! That was 20 years ago and I haven’t colored my hair since.
When our boys were little (they’re young adults now) it was sometimes hard on them having a mom with gray hair—like when I picked them up at preschool and their new friends called out to let them know their “grandma” was here. It’s also a little weird running into people I knew in high school or college who haven’t seen me since then. I sometimes wonder if, when they’re trying to pull their gaze away from my white hair (as one does with a car wreck), they’re thinking, “Wow, she sure has AGED.” I’m looking forward to my 60s and 70s though, when people could conceivably say I haven’t aged a bit in 30 years—since I first went all-gray. I did say “conceivably.”
In spite of all that I like my full head of gray hair. There’s the obvious benefit of saving time & money not having to color my hair every 6 weeks. I also like the idea of embracing the aging process instead of trying to fight it. (Although I wouldn’t mind a few less crows’ feet and if my knees stopped making those squishy noises going up stairs.) But one of the reasons I love my gray hair most is that it’s something I inherited from my dad—a piece of him I’ll carry with me the rest of my life.
Sending a child off to college prompts meditations on parenting and the passage of time.
(This column originally appeared in August 2011 in the Kansas City Star.)
In his book Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman describes a place where time stands still—where raindrops “hang motionless in air,” pendulums “float mid-swing,” and “pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets.” He calls it the center of time. Lightman then asks, “Who would make pilgrimage to the center of time?” His answer: “Parents with children, and lovers.”
At this time of year when parents of college freshmen are packing up the car with mini-fridges, extra-long twin sheets sets, study pillows, and shower caddies, the wish to stop the pendulum, if even for just a few moments, is tempting. Amidst the trips to Target and Staples, the cleaning out of closets and keepsakes, the going-away parties and the final good-byes, it’s understandable to feel wistful for the years gone by and apprehensive about the months to come. We find ourselves remembering moments of innocence and joy when our children were young, and reflecting on our parenting in times of challenge. In these moments of reflection and reminiscence the wish to turn back the clock in order to relive the good times and perhaps get a “do-over” in the bad times is hard to resist.
Add to that the uncertainty and trepidation associated with sending our children off on their own to fend for themselves in an unknown universe where they’ll inevitably come face to face with life’s hardships and everyday challenges. It’s no wonder we find ourselves doling out last-minute advice and warnings to our children as we show them how to use their new ATM card, teach them to do a load of laundry, or gather around the kitchen table for one last family dinner. If only we could send our children out into the world with an amulet that would protect them from harm and tragedy and people with hate in their hearts.
In the place described by Lightman, where time stands still and parents can be seen “clutching their children in a frozen embrace that will never let go,” Lightman imagines a world where our children would “never grow wrinkled or tired,” “never get injured,” and “never know evil.” Yet Lightman also alludes to the trade-offs involved in wishing for this “eternity of contentment,” in which we are “fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.” To be suspended in time requires the absence of movement. A heart that stops beating feels neither pain nor joy. So the choice becomes to keep moving forward, and take the bitter with the sweet. “Life is a vessel of sadness,” Lightman writes, “but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life.”
Barring amulets and the ability to stop the pendulum, as parents we must choose to bear these rites of passage with dignity and unselfishness. We remind ourselves that it’s not about us really—it’s about them after all—and that this is the way things are supposed to be. And so we seek a place of serenity in our hearts as we pull up to the dorm room, unload plastic storage bins, place fresh linens on the lofted dorm bed, hook up the new laptop, and wrap our arms around our child in one last embrace—offering an encouraging smile—before getting in the car to let the tears roll down our cheeks.